Moving Along

We’re always moving. Even at rest our heart pumps, eyeballs flit, and neurons fire away constantly. The idea of time is intertwined with that fact and like our bodies it continues to move on even if we momentarily don’t realize it. That’s why it’s always seemed odd to me that a device created to relate the passage of time can come to a complete stop. A timepiece’s working parts are even called a “movement” and that name doesn’t change when a battery loses its charge or a spring winds down.

You’ve probably gathered that for a change I’m going to bore you (the select group that doesn’t move on to play Farmville when you get to this point) with a rare post about watches. I’m not going to say much about how watches work or were used but I’m briefly going to talk about the art found in a watch. Pomposity here I come.

In the distant past watches were the prized possessions of the rich since they were hand crafted, rare, and of high cost. Even as they began to be in the reach of the average person you still saw a great deal of attention paid to the elements of design and construction. Middle grade to high grade watches made in the United States during the late 19th century may have been mass produced but a good deal of hand labor was spent in assuring that they were both functionally and aesthetically pleasing. Things that were never seen by the owner, such as the movement itself, were often elaborately decorated using a technique called “damaskeening” and “flashing”. Damaskeening was where a skilled worker had a machine which spun pointed wooden dowels (or another material) coated with abrasive to create patterns in the metal of the watch mechanism itself. The procedure created a kind of swirl which stood out from the surrounding area. Very often when you examine an upper tier movement from the golden age of U.S. watch production you’ll find that even areas only seen if the watch is disassembled have been embellished with elaborate patterns or close circles that look a little like fish scales. Flashing is where a contrasting color is applied to the movement which highlights the damaskeening. This is usually a very thin layer of gold.


Damaskeening patterns.

The movements themselves were designed to be pleasant to look at with curves and circles harmoniously incorporated. Smaller details like the written information on them was also done with flair in elaborate lettering. Some even had decorative elements like flowers engraved in the metal.

It’s this mechanical beauty that made me start to collect watches such as the ones below. All the timepieces pictured in the gallery are American 12 size late 19th to early 20th century pieces. Even if I had no idea what they did I’d find the craftsmanship appealing to look at.

  1. Kim
    September 14, 2009, 2:51 pm

    My dad would really appreciate this post. I think I will send it to him!

  2. TAO
    September 14, 2009, 6:03 pm

    Kim: I hope he likes it. The post is long on pictures but short on content. 🙂

  3. Kim
    September 15, 2009, 2:13 pm

    Dad emailed me, he did enjoy this post. He says he has a Rockford that was my great grandfathers’ that I will one day own. When I am visiting I will have to take pictures! He also says he thinks you have good taste. 🙂

  4. TAO
    September 15, 2009, 2:53 pm

    Kim: I’m glad he liked this. I always need to point out there are far better places to read about these things on the web. As for good taste I really don’t think that’s something I have a great deal of! Rockfords were fine watches and are one of the lesser known U.S. manufacturers. Make sure you take some pictures of it!